EARLIER this year, Greater Manchester started to retake of its buses following decades of deregulation.

The launch of the Bee Network means capped fares and a network that brings together local trams, buses and bikes in a bid to improve essential transport services for people across the region.  

Now, the Better Buses for Strathclyde campaign is aiming to bring a similar system to the Strathclyde region.

“The only way we can do something like this here is by doing something as ambitious as what Greater Manchester is doing”, explains Ellie Harrison of the public transport campaign Get Glasgow Moving.

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She’s among a number of names to back the campaign and says that a “complete rebrand” is needed when it comes to the bus network across Strathclyde.

“It shouldn’t be First running this bus, Stagecoach running this – we need everything brought together and unified.

“People in Greater Manchester can see it – the buses have literally changed colour and it’s easy to get a ticket on all the transport modes.”

The National: Stagecoach is one of a number of bus companies operating in StrathclydeStagecoach is one of a number of bus companies operating in Strathclyde

In an exclusive interview with The National, Harrison spoke about the importance of the new campaign and how public transport should be at the forefront of “social, environmental and economic justice”.

Call for ‘public control’

Harrison set out in detail exactly what the campaign wants to see happen.

“What we’re campaigning for is ‘public control’ of the bus network as what we want Strathclyde Partnership for Transport to do is a combination of re-regulating the existing private bus companies and setting up a new publicly-owned operator for the region which can take over more of the network incrementally once services are regulated,” she explains.

The campaign is backed by a number of groups including the Scottish Trades Union Congress and Friends of the Earth Scotland.

Harrison believes one of the most important elements of the initiatives is that it’s got the backing of organisations with differing concerns be it the environment or workers’ rights.

Environmental impact

The Scottish Government has set itself ambitious climate targets with a target date of net zero emissions of all greenhouse gases by 2045.

However, a more pressing date set out in the Climate Change Plan is a commitment to reduce car kilometres by 20% by 2030.

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Ultimately though, Harrison says these targets will only be possible if there’s a proper bus network to reduce the reliance on cars.

 “We only have seven years to reach those targets. I really don’t think the Scottish Government have grasped the scale of the transformation that’s necessary.

“That’s why we’re pushing them to do this.”

A spokesperson for Transport Scotland said the route map they have set out will meet the committment to reduce car kilometres and that the "scale of the challenge" the country is facing meant a wide variety of interventions across infrastructure, incentives and regulatory actions would be needed. 

They added that the organisation is committed to a "just transition" and that it was taking into account "the needs of those who may be less able to reduce car use, such as carers and those living with a disability or in rural locations".

As well as numerous organisations, a petition backing the campaign has been signed by thousands - it can be found HERE

Economic benefit

This campaign isn’t the first to set out the potential benefits of changing the current bus network model.

Gracie Bradley, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said that a psychological shift is needed in the way we think about transport, whereby it is treated as an essential service the same as education or health, for example.

A report titled Public Transport, Private Profit by Philip Alston, Bassam Khawaja and Rebecca Riddell goes a step further, treating it as a human rights issue.

It notes that buses are “essential” for those on lower incomes but that ultimately the current system means “private operators aim to make a profit regardless of the cost to the public and the service itself”.

Harrison (below) added: “I think what’s important to stress is that obviously the buses need to be better but it also needs to be cheaper.”

The National:

For example, in terms of fares, a single on First Glasgow can cost £2.85 compared to just £2 on Edinburgh’s publicly-owned Lothian buses.

In its Strathclyde Regional Bus Strategy – which lays out how transport in Strathclyde must develop in the next fifteen years – SPT said there were issues with “above inflation fare increases”.

The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that the networks aren’t linked meaning people may need to buy multiple tickets for one journey which can add up quickly.

What next?

Harrison is optimistic that the campaign can be a success but stresses the need for things to move quickly.

“I am confident we can win this campaign”, she said.

“We have been watching SPT carefully over the last few years and know this is the right time to ramp up the pressure on them to use the new powers in the Transport Act 2019 to regulate the private bus companies in the region and to set up a new publicly-owned operator for Strathclyde, as they develop the new Strathclyde Regional Bus Strategy.

“They are due to make a decision on which powers to take forward in March 2024 so we will be there ready to lobby board members and submit our petition, signed by thousands, to demonstrate the sheer weight of public support for them taking our buses back into public control.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity.”

SPT response

A spokesperson for SPT told The National that it “welcomes the input and views of all interest groups” as they look to improve the bus network.

It noted that the initial findings of the SRBS found issues with “shrinking network coverage, induced delays and above fare increases” as being among the key issues.

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The spokesperson added: “Phase two of the SRBS will consider all options to address such issues including the provisions set out in the 2019 Transport (Scotland) Act, with the intention to present a preferred way forward in March 2024 – including the proposed operational and funding model, and timescales for delivery.”

Transport Scotland

A Transport Scotland spokesperson responded to the campaign, explaining that Scotland “provides free bus travel to a larger percentage of the population than schemes elsewhere in the UK”.

The spokesperson explained: "Earlier this month, regulations were laid in the Scottish Parliament to give local transport authorities more options to improve bus services in their own areas. 

"It gives authorities access to the remaining bus powers within the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019, which was designed to delegate more flexibility to respond to local challenges and empower local authorities to help us to make Scotland’s transport network cleaner, smarter and more accessible than ever before."

They continued: “As well as running their own bus services, local transport authorities can now work with operators to further improve the quality and efficiency of local services through a Bus Services Improvement Partnership or to develop a franchising framework, where the authority sets out the services to be provided and standards to be met within an area, contracting bus operators to run them.   

“To support this, we recently launched the Community Bus Fund, which aims to improve access to bus services, for example by upgrading bus stops and installing real time electronic timetables, encourage integration between transport modes, perhaps by installing infrastructure like mobility hubs, and trial innovative solutions or improvements to encourage patronage or increase efficiency. 

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“In addition, the Bus Partnership Fund (BPF), where funding is provided for bus priority infrastructure to tackle the impacts of congestion on bus services, has awarded over £26 million to operators, local authorities, and others, to identify, develop and deliver bus priority across Scotland.  

“And of course Scotland provides free bus travel to a larger percentage of the population than schemes elsewhere in the UK, with more than 2m people eligible – encouraging more people to choose to take the bus and leave their cars at home. This includes 84m free bus journeys by under 22s across Scotland.

"All of this is backed in 2023/24 by £418.7m in resource funding and £72m in capital funding for bus. We think that proves how important we value the bus sector.”

They added that "the most direct levers on the cost of buying or running a petrol or diesel car - fuel duty and vehicle excise duty - are reserved to Westminster".